Do you have all the skills you need to fully express yourself on the guitar? If you think you could be doing a better job, you might find this article helpful.
Whether you’re new to the guitar or have significant experience, there’s ALWAYS something new to learn.
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What are Essential Guitar Skills?
Essential guitar skills are the basic set of tools guitarists need in order to play reasonably well.
In practice, “playing guitar” means different things to different people according to their preferences and abilities.
For instance, you may only have a handful of chords but still have a great time making music. Or you may not consider yourself an adequate player until you’ve mastered the solo from Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb.
In other words, a precise list of essential guitar skills may be different from player to player. With this in mind, let’s get familiar with the basic skills every guitar player should have in their toolbox.
Here’s a checklist of 13 of the most important skills every guitarist needs to learn:
Essential Guitar Skills
- Names of open strings
- How to tune your guitar
- How to hold a pick
- Root position or open chord names
- How to identify a chord or single note
- The ability to play in time with good rhythm
- The musical alphabet
- Basic theory
- What sharps and flats are and how they work
- Simple pentatonic scales
- Accurate picking
- Clean chord changes
- The ability to play complete songs
In the practical sense I would also add items such as how to use a capo or the ability to change your own strings.
Depending on our own abilities, experience and musical tastes, the tools we use to play can have different levels of importance to individual players.
For instance, from a teacher’s point of view the hardest skill I ever had to help students with was rhythm. In fact, the term “natural rhythm” implies that we are either gifted or denied a given level of natural timing. The same could be said for other musical abilities as well.
I would say most of us possess a fairly accurate internal metronome. For other guitar players though, getting their strumming hand to match the rhythm of a song can be extraordinarily difficult.
What are Guitar Skill Levels?
In a nutshell, guitar skill levels can be categorized as beginner, intermediate and advanced.
The tricky part is, as mentioned previously, there’s a certain amount of crossover between one level and the next depending on what skill you consider to be important.
Nevertheless, we’ll try to categorize them as best we can. Here’s a more comprehensive look at some of the more common guitar skills by category:
Basic guitar skills required for a someone just beginning to play include:
Beginner Guitar Skills
- How to hold a guitar
- How to hold a pick
- String names
- Playing a single note
- Basic strumming
- How to tuner with a tuner
- Root position chord shapes and names
- Playing basic songs
As you would expect, each successive level is built on the foundations of the previous. Think of it like building a house, we begin with a foundation then start putting up studs, walls and a roof.
Here are a few skills you should know and learn to be considered an intermediate level guitarist:
Intermediate Guitar Skills
- Play barre chords
- Use hammer-ons and pull-offs
- String bending
- Understand degrees of a scale
- Unterstand intervals
- How triads make basic chords
- Construct basic chords anywhere on the neck
- Identify any note anywhere on the neck
- Major and minor pentatonic scales
- Basic major and minor diatonic scales
- Read and write tab
- Read and write chord diagrams
- Have good relative pitch
- Understand relative major and minor
- Able to do basic improvisation
- Able to perform a basic soloing
- Tune by ear
- Basics of music notation
- Key signatures
- Time signatures
- Familiarity with the treble clef
- Song structure
Obviously the list is getting longer. This is because your our are subdividing, branching out into new areas. In other words, we’re building more rooms.
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At this level. guitar skills develop to the point where for many, playing becomes a true extension of their being. That is to say, the understanding and execution of advanced level guitar skills has painted the walls and put furniture in the house.
A partial list of advanced guitar skills would include:
Advanced Guitar Skills
- Complex rhythms
- Chord variations, inversions and extensions
- Chord substitutions
- Secondary dominants
- Knowing the musical alphabet backwards with confidence
- Legato technique
- Melodic and harmonic minor scales
- Pedal tones
- All clefs
- Sight reading
- Musical terminology
- Circle of Fifths
- Two-hand tapping
- Sweep Picking
- Hybrid Picking
- Travis Picking
- Ear training
You might notice each level contains a mix of the theory and technique. Theory can be as simple as string and chord names – which are named after notes, and notes come from a scale. Similarly, technique can be as simple as changing chords – the right fingers in the right places at the right time.
As you progress as a player, the extended abilities are the tools that take up residence in your mind and spill out onto the fretboard.
How Guitar Skills Work Together
Guitar skills are the tools guitarists use to express themselves musically. These skills can range from very simple things such as tuning, to more complex items such as chord inversions, hybrid picking or modal soloing.
Some skills are absolute. For example, understanding the notes contained within the C Major scale are: C D E F G A B C. Once you know it, you know it.
Other guitar skills start with a foundational element, then through exercise and refinement branch out into subcategories. These subcategories can then be considered individual skills on their own.
For instance, in order to understand (not just play) a C Major chord, you must first understand the notes that make up the C Major scale. From there you can then assemble the notes C E and G and play a C Major chord or arpeggio anywhere on the guitar neck.
As another example, picking a single string leads to picking more than one string, which then leads to alternate picking, circular picking, sweep picking etc.
See what I mean? More guitar skills to learn…
What Level Are Your Own Skills At?
Can you categorize your own playing to a certain level? Use the lists above to see where your own skills are currently at. What skills could you improve on or may be short on?
Unfortunately many players are intimidated by the amount of knowledge they feel they are “obliged” to absorb in order to be considered competent.
Do you have all the tools you need? If you feel you’re missing something important, Guitareo offers a free course on fundamental guitar skills:
- Playing Your First Song
- How to Tune a Guitar
- Making Chords Sound Clean
- Changing Chords Smoothly
- Sight Reading Essentials
- Exploring Guitar Rhythms
- Playing Your Fist Solo
- Legato Hammer-Ons & Pull-Offs
- Soloing with Minor Pentatonic Scales
Personal Thoughts on Guitar Skills
Music theory is by far the most important and useful guitar skill you can ever learn.
Think about this for a second:
When you understand the underlying concepts of musical theory you literally unlock your imagination. At that point the only thing holding you back is your physical ability to make it happen on the fretboard.Steve B
Being essentially self-taught, learning theory was the smartest musical decision I ever made. EVERYTHING made sense – the doors to creativity and expression flew wide open.
Along with learning other skills, theory was an excellent way to advance my playing. If you find yourself stuck, add a new guitar skill to your toolbox: Playing the same old pentatonic boxes? Learn more scales! Tired of playing with a pick? Take up fingerstyle!
The options are endless. You have everything to gain by adding or improving your guitar skills. There’s always something to learn and your ability to express yourself more freely will thank you for it.
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